The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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The Death of the Nation-State?
David Clinton (from MA 52 03) - 02/09/11

A World beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State
by Pierre Manent (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

If the nation-state is indeed dying, who will be the mourners at its funeral? Not the many figures in contemporary academia who have denounced it as the haven for institutionalized oppression and international aggression, at once too weak to deal successfully with transnational problems like environmental pollution and too powerful for the safety of its tyrannized inhabitants. Among the figures at the graveside, however, will be at least one political thinker whose academic credentials will be difficult to denigrate. Pierre Manent does not dispute that powerful forces do indeed threaten the survival of the nation-state in many parts of the world, but he argues convincingly that this development is to be regretted, because of its deleterious effect on democratic citizenship.

At its heart, his argument is that effective citizenship requires that one be a citizen somewhere>. Without the community provided by an identifiable group of fellow citizens, set off from the rest of the world by their possession of common political traditions and a shared sense of the purposes of that regime, democratic deliberation >is impossible. The history of Western civilization is in large part an account of the repeated rediscovery of this truth in a variety of historical and institutional settings. Although a tension exists in the relation of the national group and unadulterated democracy—because a nation consists of a pre-existing community that is thought to be “natural” and not the product of the free choice of each individual member of the community or even of the majority of its individual members, and because nation-states have traditionally rested on the security provided by institutions organized on principles other than equal liberty and majority rule, such as the armed forces—the nation exercising control over its own sovereign state has come to be the form in which the problem of the coexistence of individual freedom and communal self-government is most nearly successfully solved. Just as some degree of economic self-sufficiency has traditionally been thought necessary to the well-being of the national state, and all the individual citizens it represents, so a political self-sufficiency, or independence, has been considered a corollary to citizens freely reasoning together about the policies that will best serve their common life. Lacking the national community, they are strangers >to one another, with little ability to discuss among themselves (because the object whose future they are debating is unclear) and less willingness to make sacrifices for the common good, if indeed the shared good of a heterogeneous, apparently randomly collected, group of people can be identified.

Given what would seem to be its considerable contribution to human flourishing, why would the nation-state find itself under such stress that its very existence is said to be imperiled, if in fact, as is often asserted, it has not already come to an end? Manent finds his primary answer to this question in the analysis of democracy by Tocqueville, who may be said to be the intellectual godfather of the volume, even if Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Kant are cited a greater number of times. Tocqueville saw the power and the inevitable advance of equality, understood as fundamental likeness, which was the definition of “democracy” he employed in Democracy in America>. Democracy in this sense of leveling had two enormously important consequences central to Manent’s theme. One was that equality mandated the attitude that “my opinion is as good anyone else’s,” which implied that the only legitimate laws were those that the individual had agreed to himself; “democracy” as a general sense of equality laid the groundwork for the specifically political institutional arrangements of democratic government: regular, free elections, conducted under universal suffrage, of authorities whose power would be limited only by the restraints (such as constitutions) set in place by the people themselves. The second effect was the delegitimizing of all differences because the very idea of distinctions ran counter to the principle of sameness. In its dissolving effect on ancient institutions like hereditary class structures, the advance of equality in this sense made possible the emergence of the nation, which, when combined with the acceptance of democracy as the only legitimate form of government, opened the way for the liberal democratic nation-state that, for Manent, is a praiseworthy regime.

Because of the illimitable quality of the leveling process, however, it could not be confined only to those distinctions incompatible with a number of independent nation-states, within each of which a lively non-hierarchical democratic polity prevailed. All >differences would sooner or later be held illegitimate, and Manent discusses several instances of this trend, including the pressure under which traditional views on the proper roles of men and women, and the privileged legal position of indissoluble heterosexual marriage, would be placed. For present purposes, the most central distinction to be questioned would be that between fellow citizens and others—in other words, the boundaries of nation-states themselves. The “religion of humanity,” as he calls it, would recognize no rightful repository of authority between the autonomous individual, on the one hand, and the undifferentiated association of all human beings, the entire human race, on the other.

In turn, two consequences flow from carrying equality to this extent. One is to confirm the tendency of citizens to withdraw into a concern only for the happiness and economic well-being of themselves and their families and to see no connection between pursuing their self-interest and exercising the duties of citizenship. This effect is “individualism,” the deleterious character of which Tocqueville analyzed. The second consequence is more readily apparent in our own day than in Tocqueville’s and is described at greater length by Manent: the deference given to any institution labeled “international” over one the nature of which was only >“national,” and the draining away of the legitimate authority and independence of nation-states.

For Manent, the combined effect of these two trends is almost completely malign in choking off deliberative democratic participation. Without constant reminders of Tocqueville’s “self-interest rightly understood” (which held that in acting as citizens the inhabitants of a state were in fact serving their most important self-interest: protecting their liberties), individualism reduces citizens to consumers. Meanwhile, the international institutions that gain power at the expense of national governments generally contain few means of popular control, and in any case evoke no passionate loyalty from the people they govern that would prompt them to defend, much less attempt to direct, the distant bodies that regulate their lives.

Manent adduces three contemporary developments in international relations to demonstrate his argument, and in doing so he raises doubts about what in many quarters are regarded as indisputably beneficial curtailments of the power of outdated sovereign states: the freeing of international trade; the extending reach of judge-made law, and particularly international law; and the expanding European Union. Recognizing that all these developments respond to abuses committed by nation-states or to incapacities demonstrated by them, he wishes to remind us that they diminish the control that people, acting collectively, exercise over their own lives.

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